New nuke deal with Iran leaves Israel with few options

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his cabinet. (AP/Abir Sultan}
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his cabinet.
(AP/Abir Sultan}

After feverishly trying to derail the international community’s nuclear deal with Iran in recent weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now has little choice but to accept an agreement that he has derided as deeply flawed.

Netanyahu believes the six-month deal leaves Iran’s military nuclear capabilities largely intact, while giving Iran relief from painful economic sanctions, undermining negotiations on the next stage. At the same time, Israel’s strongest piece of leverage, the threat of a military strike on Iran, seems to be out of the question despite Netanyahu’s insistence it would remain on the table.

“Today the world became a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world made a significant step in obtaining the most dangerous weapons in the world,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday, calling the deal a “historic mistake.”

He said Israel was not bound by the agreement, and reiterated Israel’s right to “defend itself by itself,” a veiled reference to a possible military strike against Iran.

Netanyahu has spent years warning the world against the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran, calling it an existential threat due to Iranian references to Israel’s destruction, its support of hostile militant groups on Israel’s borders and its development of missiles capable of reaching Israel and beyond.

Israel also believes that a nuclear-armed Iran will provide militant groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah an “umbrella” of protection that will embolden them to carry out attacks.

As momentum for a deal built the past week, Netanyahu delivered speech after speech and held meeting after meeting, urging the world to seek better terms from Iran. Last week, he hosted French President Francois Hollande, then rushed off to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin in a last-ditch attempt to alter the agreement.

Netanyahu had said that any deal must ensure that Iran’s enriching of uranium — a key step toward making a nuclear bomb — must end. He also said all enriched material should be removed from the Islamic Republic, and called for the demolition of a plutonium reactor under construction.

But after the deal was announced, it was clear that Netanyahu made little headway. While freezing parts of Iran’s enrichment capabilities, it will leave others, including the centrifuges that are used for enrichment, intact. The deal relies heavily on Iranian goodwill, a still-to-be-defined system of international inspections and the continued pain of sanctions that remain in place.

Yoel Guzansky, who used to monitor the Iranian nuclear program for Israel’s National Security Council, said a deal that would satisfy Israel was unlikely from the outset due to differing “red lines” between Israel and the U.S.

While Israel sees any enrichment as a cause for concern, the U.S. was willing to tolerate nuclear development as long as it was unable to produce weapons, said Guzansky, who is now an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank.

“It’s a bad agreement because of what it symbolizes,” he said. “It means Iran is getting an acceptance, a signature that it’s a legitimate country.” Even worse for Israel, he added, the agreement amounts to “acceptance of Iran as a nuclear threshold state.”

U.S. officials said Sunday’s deal was just a first step and further negotiations aim for a final agreement that would prevent any threat from Iran’s nuclear program.

They said the relief from sanctions was minimal and that the most biting economic measures, including sanctions on Iran‘s vital oil industry, remained in place and more could be imposed if Iran fails to follow through.

Guzansky predicted that despite the tough rhetoric, Israel would move quickly to repair relations with the U.S., its closest and most important ally, and do everything possible to influence the outcome of the world’s final-status talks with Iran.

That could include speeches, threats of military action or behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Israel is not a direct participant in the talks but remains in close contact with many of the negotiators.

The relationship with the U.S. will be critical as Israel conducts peace talks with the Palestinians in the coming months. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is mediating the talks, has set an April target date for reaching an agreement, and there is widespread speculation that the Americans will step up their involvement as the deadline approaches.

Guzansky also said Israel’s main card — military action — appears to be out of the question right now.

“How can Israel, after the entire international community sat with Iran, shook hands with Iran and signed an agreement, operate independently?” he said. “It will be seen as someone who sabotages 10 years of trying to get Iran to the table and trying to get a deal.”

Enrichment is at the heart of the dispute because it can be used for peaceful purposes or for producing a nuclear bomb. Tehran insists its nuclear program is for civilian usage such as energy production and cancer treatment.

Uranium at low levels of enrichment, up to 20 percent, is used in research or generating electricity. Uranium must be enriched to a far higher level — above 90 percent — to produce a warhead. So far, Iran is not known to have produced any at that level, but Israel argues that the technology for doing so is the same as that for enriching at lower levels.

Under the compromise, enrichment would be capped at the 5 percent level, and Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent uranium would be “neutralized,” effectively preventing it from reaching weapons-grade level. Also construction on the plutonium reactor is to be suspended. The White House also promised “intrusive monitoring” of Iranian nuclear facilities.

Israel says any enriched uranium in Iranian hands is potentially dangerous, since its centrifuges can quickly convert it to weapons grade. Israel believes that Iran’s ability to keep its nuclear infrastructure intact will allow it to can quickly resume the program if the later talks fail.

“Iran is a threshold nuclear country,” said Netanyahu’s Cabinet minister for intelligence affairs, Yuval Steinitz. “So far it was completely against U.N. security resolutions, and now it gets some kind of recognition at least for the next six months as a threshold nuclear country.”

In all, about 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of highly enriched uranium is needed to make a weapon. Iran already has about 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of enriched uranium.

Ephraim Asculai, a former official at Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, said Sunday’s agreement was not all bad for Israel, since it capped enrichment activity and slowed construction of the plutonium reactor. But he said Iran’s ability to “break out” and make a nuclear explosive device remained intact, perhaps in as little as four to six months once a decision is made.

“The good part of the deal is that enrichment stops at the present level and that is also some of the bad news because enrichment does go on,” he said.

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Federman is AP’s news editor based in Jerusalem and has covered Israel since 2003.
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 Associated Press  All Rights Reserved

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Talks fail over Iran’s disputed nuke program

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius (AP/Pool)
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius (AP/Pool)

France’s foreign minister says marathon six-power talks with Iran have failed to reach a deal meant to cap some of Tehran’s nuclear program.

Laurent Fabius says the talks, which ended early Sunday, managed to narrow differences without eliminating them.

He says there are “still questions to be dealt with” in future rounds.

The talks are focused on a deal that will start limiting Iranian nuclear programs that could be used for weapons, in exchange for suspending some sanctions on Iran’s economy.

Tehran says it does not want atomic arms.Chances of that appeared to diminish as the day went on.

A Western diplomat in Geneva for the talks told The Associated Press it appeared that a new round of negotiations would be needed to agree on all points of a startup deal meant to lead to a comprehensive agreement ensuring that Tehran’s nuclear work remains peaceful.

He said preparations were being made by both sides for an announcement later in the day of a new meeting within a few weeks. He said earlier that the French were holding out for conditions on the Iranians tougher than those agreed to by the U.S. and France’s other negotiating partners, diminishing hopes of a done deal Saturday.

However, the talks in Geneva were still underway, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and foreign ministers from Britain, France, Germany and Russia meeting with one another, and some of them with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Baodong Li also arrived Friday evening.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius spoke of “several points that … we’re not satisfied with compared to the initial text,” telling France-Inter Radio his nation does not want to be part of a “con game.”

He did not specify, but his comments suggested France thought a final draft of any first-step deal was too favorable to Iran, echoing concerns raised by Israel and several prominent U.S. legislators.

The French position was confirmed by another Western diplomat. Both gave no specifics and demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the diplomatic maneuvering.

Iranian state TV strongly criticized the French position, calling France “Israel’s representatives at the talks.”

The United States and the five other powers in negotiations with Iran aimed at freezing its nuclear program normally keep disputes among themselves, so the public show of French disagreement was unusual.

Optimism about an interim agreement had been high when the talks were extended for a third day on Saturday and raised to a ministerial level.

Fabius’ remarks by telephone from Geneva were the first to provide some specifics on the obstacles at the talks.

Fabius mentioned differences over Iran’s Arak reactor southeast of Tehran, which could produce enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons a year once it goes online. He also said there was disagreement over efforts to limit Iran’s uranium enrichment to levels that would require substantial further enriching before they could be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal pointed to “rather large cohesion” among the negotiators and said France wanted “the international community to see a serious change in the climate” of talks with Iran.

“There have been years of talks that have led to nothing,” Nadal said, alluding to the need for tough terms on Iran.

Iran, which denies any interest in nuclear weapons, currently runs more than 10,000 centrifuges that have created tons of fuel-grade material that can be further enriched to arm nuclear warheads.

It also has nearly 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of higher-enriched uranium in a form that can be turned into weapons much more quickly. Experts say 550 pounds (250 kilograms) of that 20 percent-enriched uranium are needed to produce a single warhead.

Iran says it expects Arak, the plutonium producing reactor, to be completed and go online sometime next year. It would need additional facilities to reprocess the plutonium into weapons-grade material, and the U.N’s nuclear agency monitoring Iran’s atomic activities says it has seen no evidence of such a project.

Fabius said Iran is opposed to suspending work on Arak while nuclear negotiations go on in an attempt to reach a first-stage agreement, then a comprehensive final deal limiting Tehran’s atomic work. He said that “for us” suspension was absolutely necessary, but it was unclear if that meant France was alone in seeing the issue as non-negotiable or whether he was speaking for the rest of the negotiating group.

Iran also is being asked to blend down “a great part of this stock at 20 percent, to 5 percent,” Fabius said. Uranium enriched to 5 percent is considered reactor fuel grade and upgrading it to weapons-level takes much longer than for 20 percent enriched uranium.

Fabius suggested that the six powers were looking for an Iranian commitment to cap future enrichment at 5 percent.

“We are hoping for a deal, but for the moment there are still issues that have not been resolved,” he said.

Signaling that the talks could end without agreement, British Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke of unresolved issues and told reporters “there is no fixed time for us to reach a conclusion.”

Any agreement would be a breakthrough after nearly a decade of mostly inconclusive talks, but would only be the start of a long process to reduce Iran’s potential ability to produce nuclear arms, with no guarantee of ultimate success.

Kerry and his European counterparts arrived in Geneva on Friday with the talks at a critical stage following a full day of negotiations Thursday, and he said some obstacles remained in the way of any agreement offering sanctions reductions for nuclear concessions.

The presence of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Chinese deputy foreign minister provided fresh hope for at least an interim deal.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Friday that any agreement in the making was a “bad deal” that gave Iran a pass by offering to lift sanctions for cosmetic concessions that he said left intact Tehran’s nuclear weapons-making ability. Israel is strongly critical of any deal that even slightly lifts sanctions unless Iran is totally stripped of technology that can make nuclear arms.

Asked about Netanyahu’s criticism, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday “any critique of the deal is premature” because an agreement has not been reached.

The White House later said President Barack Obama called Netanyahu to update him on the ongoing talks and that Obama affirmed he’s still committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The White House said Obama and Netanyahu would stay in close contact.

On Friday, Kerry tempered reports of progress, warning of “important gaps” that must be overcome. But Lavrov’s deputy, Sergei Ryabov, was quoted then as saying that Moscow expects them to produce a “lasting result expected by the international community.”

The talks primarily focus on the size and output of Iran’s enrichment program, which can create both reactor fuel and weapons-grade material suitable for a nuclear bomb. Iran insists it is pursuing only nuclear energy, medical treatments and research, but the U.S. and its allies fear that Iran could turn this material into the fissile core of nuclear warheads.

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Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris; Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran; and George Jahn in Geneva contributed.
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press

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Obama set to defend policies on Israel

President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

President Barack Obama is fighting back against Republicans who claim he is not fully supporting Israel, saying the efforts by his opponents are playing politics with the volatile middle east.

Still, Obama is treading politically-sensitive waters Sunday when he tried to defend his differences with the Jewish state over Iran’s nuclear program in a speech before Israel’s primary lobbying group in America.

He also faces a tense meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday.

“The President is walking a political tightrope,” political scientist Andrew Gallimore tells Capitol Hill Blue. “Anything perceived as less than 100 percent support for Israel is dangerous.”

Obama insists he backs Israel without hesitation and has done so consistently during his time in office, but he does admit policy differences. In a magazine interview last week, he claimed his Republican rivals ignore that record.

Israel insists it has the right to, and will, take out Iran’s nuclear power plant if it feels the country is using it to develop weapons.

Obama urges caution and that is the kind of disagreement with Israel that can get a President in hot water.

(c) Copyright 2012 Capitol Hill Blue

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